In the past month, a Baltimore police officer was recorded coughing in the direction of public housing complex residents, apparently intentionally; another shot a teenage boy who was holding a replica gun; and another was charged in federal court for allegedly lying to the FBI about selling cocaine. And on May 1, the department intends to go ahead with a controversial plan to fly surveillance planes over the city, despite concerns raised by the American Civil Liberties Union over individual rights to privacy and potential constitutional violations.
So, is it any wonder that a community survey — required by the federal consent decree between the city, police department and U.S. government — recently showed that more than half of city residents are “very dissatisfied” with the BPD? The feeling stretched across demographic categories: White/black, male/female, old/young, homeless/housed, educated/not so much; all were peeved with police.
Worse, the survey — results of which were chronicled in a 229-page report filed in U.S. District Court in late March — found a majority of participants (again, across demographic boundaries) don’t trust officers and are hesitant to interact with them, even if the person has been the victim of a crime. Seventy-two percent of respondents said they’re not likely to call police if their home is broken into; 76% aren’t even likely to ask a BPD officer for directions if they’re lost. Nearly half of those surveyed, 45%, said they feel nervous when they see a city officer or police car, with the main reason given for both discomfort and comfort being the same: prior experience, either through calls for service or traffic and street stops.
“A common perception in Baltimore is that the police will falsely accuse and arrest black people, particularly males, for crimes they did not commit, and do so because of their race,” the report said.
Only one in 10 folks surveyed said the BPD is doing a good job.
Perhaps most disheartening is the fact that none of this is news. The Baltimore Police Department has a long and well-documented history of troubled relationships with the communities it polices. The death of Freddie Gray in police custody five years ago brought the issue to the forefront, and since then, many promises have been made and efforts launched.
Four years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing and lengthy report chronicling repeated and appalling constitutional violations by city officers.
Three years ago, a U.S. District Court in Maryland bound the Baltimore Police Department in a consent decree “to ensure that the City and BPD protect individuals’ statutory and constitutional rights, treat individuals with dignity and respect, and promote public safety in a manner that is fiscally responsible and responsive to community priorities.”
Two years ago, the state legislature authorized the Maryland Commission to Restore Trust in Policing in response to the revelation that Baltimore police officers associated with the Gun Trace Task Force had been involved in a racketeering conspiracy involving robbery, extortion and overtime pay fraud.
One year ago, the BPD issued its “Crime Reduction & Departmental Transformation Plan,” which acknowledged that “residents of the city deserve a world-class police force that inspires trust, ensures safety, and protects the constitutional rights of the people we serve.”
And yet today, we seem to be in the same spot we were in 2015. And the stakes could not be higher: Crime is a top concern for city residents, and homicides continue to soar.
So, what now? One person interviewed for the survey had two suggestions that stood out:
1. “Hire good, honest people that the average civilian can depend on in times of need in and danger and not be fearful of.”
2. “Try to remain human when communicating with other human beings.”
Seems so simple, right? Of course, we understand that both points are harder to achieve than they sound. You don’t know what you don’t know about a job candidate. And holding on to your humanity when you see the worst of society on a regular basis can be a difficult thing, particularly in a culture that encourages an “us and them” approach — good guys going after bad guys, instead of professionals protecting the public good in partnership with other citizens. That mentality sets officers up to see everyone as a potential threat and an enemy, rather than someone they can help.
We still believe most people in the BPD are good and honest, and making efforts to connect with those they meet on the job — both victims and perpetrators. But one bad experience with an officer can overshadow the good works of dozens of others; that’s simply human nature. The bad tends to stand out more than the good, and everyone’s held accountable for the actions of a few.
The pressure to change will have to come from within, from officers who make it clear they will no longer tolerate having their own reputations ruined by “bad apples.” That’s the cultural challenge for Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. Without an internal shift, the outside efforts don’t stand a chance — and neither does Baltimore.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.